We are taught in school that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. In the new economy, we need to treat others as they want to be treated.*
But how do we know how others want to be treated?
We don’t. We can only speculate and imagine how someone else must feel in certain situations. And this is dangerous. Psychiatrists don’t like to treat people they haven’t at least met (the 'Goldwater Rule'). For those of us who haven't studied the mind for at least 8 years in a university and had clinical training, playing armchair psychiatrist can be beyond harmful in how we deal with other people. Not only do we have a light understanding of various disorders based on a handful of Internet searches, but we make judgements based on a surface understanding of someone based on our experience of them. We only know what we have experienced or encountered, which is quite limited to a few hours versus the years that person has lived and had experience to shape their current personality. Personality tests can have a similar effect. We know how we personally scored, but can you use generalities to make assumptions about other people? Not always. What you see on the surface may not fully reflect someone’s true identity or background. People are complicated and diverse.
We all live very individual lives from when we wake up to when we go to sleep. We have different emotional responses, different thoughts, different beliefs, different experiences. We connect with each other through language and shared experiences, both physical and emotional.
We need to use shared experiences as a frame of reference to understand each other. That’s how we bond. When we date, we share experiences to get to know the other person and how they react in different situations. When we have friends, we share past experiences and do things together to understand the other person.
Why don’t we do that with our customers and prospects?
Lately in business, we haven’t been. That’s why we hear stories like the ones from United, JetBlue, Comcast. What we see from those employees is contempt for customers. There was a video about an incident on American Airlines where the employee acted like he was going to get into a physical altercation with a passenger. He was that angry. I take that back - not angry - full of contempt for the passengers on the plane. How do you get that hostile trying to tell someone she needs to check her baby carriage into luggage? One perspective is that you come to work full of contempt for these customers. Or you feel it build during your day saying the same thing to everyone ALL. DAY. LONG.
Arthur Brooks talks about contempt fueling the polarization we are seeing in politics today:
I don’t want to get into a political discussion, but what he presents is a great frame to discuss why empathy matters and is relevant in our interactions today. There is a lot of contempt in society today - polarized views, and not just in the political sphere. The challenge with the United story was that the airline felt it was 100% correct in its actions and claimed no responsibility. Similar with JetBlue - there is no responsibility from their side. It's an "I'm right, you're wrong" mentality that doesn't encourage relationship building.
The discussion shouldn't be about who is right or wrong. Everyone should be winning. How do you get there? Not through contempt, that's for sure.
Contempt is the opposite of empathy. When you are feeling contempt, you are feeling a type of disgust that originates from pity. Pity originates from believing that someone can’t help themselves out of a horrible situation. In a way, you see that person as a lesser person. "Why can’t that person figure out a solution to his or her problem?" You have no patience for hearing that person's choices and decisions because to you it could all be avoided if that person were smarter, more creative, more innovative, or whatnot.
Contempt builds distance between people. It doesn’t build relationships. And in today’s world, relationships are vital to business. In the future, it will be even more important.
The Peer-to-Peer Economy
There was a great video by Noam Chomsky about Bernie Sanders and the rise of the peer-to-peer economy - even in politics.
Bernie showed us the power of the people when we make a conscious decision to act. Individuals funded his campaign and enabled it to get as far as it did. He made funding his campaign approachable at $27/person. That’s about the price of a moderate dinner out.
If we take this model one step further, we are seeing the rise of Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, Etsy, eBay, Amazon and other peer-to-peer companies. Business is fast becoming shifting between B2B or B2C and less peer-to-peer and more person-to-person. Marketplace companies are emerging to facilitate these transactions. This isn't a new idea, really. Marketplaces have existed since the start of the Web; users then weren't ready to embrace this type of interaction or economy.
What's different about P2P (person-to-person) interaction is that this is based strongly on relationships - relationships between people and relationships to the holding company/marketplace. Without them, they won’t work.
This makes empathy for customers and the relationship lifecycle even more important. As we move to a P2P environment where we are interacting with individuals more often, we all need to be more understanding of each other. The world is shrinking - you can reach out to someone in India with a single click and start working with him or her. But the ability to understand another is becoming a skill. As the world becomes smaller, what people want and need is getting more similar and more different by the day (globalization and localization combined with personal preference - a tall order!). Experiences are more diverse. It's difficult to truly understand another person's experience and find commonalities (empathy), but without this, connection is challenging.
What to do?
It seems we have some time! We still are in the B2B/B2C paradigm.
Today customers have an initial relationship with a company through content, building trust. It can take up to 11 or more pieces of content before a prospect reaches out to talk to someone at a company. Sometimes, a prospect doesn't talk to anyone before they buy.
But at some point, prospects and customers need to talk to an employee of the company. And that conversation introduces a type of relationship between the prospect/customer and employee. It may be a 5 or 10 minute conversation and quick acquaintance, but it's a type of interaction and relationship nevertheless. During the conversation there needs to be some type of understanding built to help the prospect/customer resolve his issue.
And you can only be understanding when you feel empathy for someone else. And you can only feel empathy if you can relate to the experience that person is having.
Today we are connecting prospects/customers with employees through business conversations. Business is a conversation. And in a conversation, if you can't connect to someone through a shared experience and feel empathy, you can't build a relationship. And soon, we will be moving from the B2B/B2C model to the P2P model to a pure relationship model. Heck, we may be there already today.
*words from my HR professor recently in class.